New school construction will be green in more than one way

Marijuana taxes are giving new meaning to the term “green” construction. Colorado’s Proposition AA, which passed in November by a wide margin, was required by the constitutional amendment that legalized cannabis in order to set the excise and sales tax rates on recreational marijuana retail sales. A portion of the excise taxes is earmarked to bolster a fund designed to help the state’s aging public school facilities. Colorado’s green revolution of both kinds – energy and weed – will help repair and replace the buildings, with an average age of more than 40 years old. The Building Excellent Schools Today Act of 2008 was implemented to help provide funds to replace, upgrade and repair Colorado’s public schools. According to the Colorado Department of Education’s Financial Assistance Priority Assessment published in 2010, the state and the school districts need to spend about $17.8 billion by 2018 to perform maintenance that has been deferred from previous years due to budget shortfalls and replace school structures that have become deficient. “Deferred maintenance is work deferred on a planned or unplanned basis to a future budget cycle or postponed until funds are available,” said the board that prepared the construction report. “Deficient school structures are those that are too damaged or insufficient for their intended purpose.” The school construction fund receives money from four sources: state land trust funds, the Colorado lottery, interest on investments and, starting this year, marijuana excise taxes. The first $40 million generated each year from the 15 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana sales will go to the schools fund. School districts and charter schools can apply for grants each year to help pay for construction and repairs. The Colorado School for The Deaf and The Blind, for example, received a grant of $10.6 million in 2011 to completely renovate its Colorado Springs campus. Priority in awarding grants is given to “projects that will address safety hazards or health concerns at existing public school facilities, including concerns relating to public school facility security,” according to the BEST board grant evaluation documents. Grant applications submitted in January will be approved in June at the state board meeting. The money from pot isn’t small change, either: an additional $40 Million in annual funding would represent a 37 percent increase in construction and repair dollars available, compared to last year. Not all projects run into the millions, either. Cash grants given to districts in the last cycle ranged from as little as $33,000 up to $1.5 million. Roof replacements, ventilation and cooling repair and security upgrades were the most common uses of the 24 cash grants awarded in 2013. Only about half of the proposals were awarded grants. In addition to cash grants, BEST funds are also used to guarantee financed projects. “Lease-purchase grants are typically used to fund larger projects like new schools, major renovations and additions,” according to the Colorado education department. “These grants are financed and the financing is paid back with future assistance fund revenues.” Concerns over how the federal government will handle local legalization of a drug that remains prohibited by federal law may hamper investment in longer-term projects, says Amy Lathen, an El Paso County commissioner. “If the administration changes at the federal level, and the feds come in to enforce existing laws, boy, I would not want to be someone counting on this revenue,” she said. Still, few in government will turn down extra funding: Lathen and her fellow El Paso County commissioners have asked the state revenue department to allocate some of the marijuana sales and excise taxes to counties and cities which have opted out of allowing recreational sales in their areas.